The Bard gets a new stage in England

Globe and Mail

Stratford-upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Company theatre complex, officially re-opened by the Queen on March 4 after a Falstaff-sized two-year refurb, used to be a somewhat precious old luvvie.

 

Plum-accented and prone to lording it over the mere mortals who visited for their spoonfuls of Bardly medicine, its vast main stage turned the fourth wall into a passive, often-dozing presence. At least that’s how I remember performances here as a grumbling school trip teenager in the 1980s.

 

But the mammoth £112-million rebuild – bookending parts of the former complex around two new “thrust stage” auditoriums and a shiny fresh interior – has transformed England’s leading Shakespeare theatre into a modern player, one that winks and smiles at audiences and even leaps into the seats beside them.

 

Local lad William, born around the corner in this small Warwickshire town and entombed along the street in Holy Trinity Church, would likely have loved the increased engagement – just as well, since the RSC has made it the new building’s raison d’etre.

 

Entering through snazzy glass doors, I found the place buzzing with Bard fans exploring the new features: reinvented eateries; iPod and backstage walking tours; past performances projected onto lobby walls; a gift shop selling “Eat My Leek” quotation pins; and – my favourite – a prop chair that pronounces Shakespearean slights when you sit on it (it accurately dubbed me a “wrong-headed ape”).

 

The main new attraction, though, is a skyline-dominating 36-metre viewing tower, attached to the building like a redbrick lighthouse. It’s not universally popular – while I was taking pictures, a passing local cheerfully called it “the fire station training tower.” But its unfolding views over the rippling River Avon and gabled Elizabethan shops contextualize a small town that somehow raised the world’s most famous playwright.

 

With time to spare around the shows I’d booked, I hit the streets to explore Shakespeare’s Stratford life – and the flourishing tourist trade it triggered.

 

First up was the Birthplace, a brown, half-timbered cottage on Henley Street where the Bard was born to a leather tanner in 1564. Nosing through its creaky-floored rooms with guide Clive Depper, I learned that William’s father was often in debt and the house continually reeked of the urine he used for tanning.

 

It was a century after the playwright’s death before the Birthplace became the focus of a fledgling Shakespeare tourist industry, fuelled by actor David Garrick’s 1769 festival that re-popularized his work. “By the Victorian era,” said Depper, “visitors were climbing the stairs to the room where Shakespeare was born and scratching their names into the window.”

 

Like many locals, Depper has been waiting patiently for the RSC complex to re-open. He’s a supporter of the new thrust configuration, where seating is on three sides of the stage and the actors enter and exit on catwalks through the audience.

 

“Some people complain about them because their different but I think they’re wonderful: you’re so close to the action and you’re engaged throughout the performance,” he said, adding that he’s learned you can’t please everyone when it comes to Shakespeare. It’s a sentiment I’m reminded of at another of the town’s Bardly attractions.

 

Nash’s House is an artifact-lined Elizabethan residence that’s now a museum. It adjoins the site of New Place, the grand home Shakespeare bought with the proceeds of his London stage success. After his 1616 death here, the house passed to other owners, including Reverend Francis Gastrell, resident when the Bard-hugging masses began rolling into town in the 1700s.

 

Annoyed by the oglers peering into his property, Gastrell cut down the garden’s venerated mulberry tree, said to have been planted by Shakespeare. The angry locals responded by smashing his windows. But the town’s biggest Bard-hater had the last laugh: when he moved out, he had the house demolished. It’s now an important but slightly tragic archaelogical site.

 

Strolling Stratford today, with businesses falling over themselves to make Bardly references – this is the home of Othello’s Café and quill-wielding gingerbread men – it’s hard to fathom the reverend’s irreverent stance. But perhaps he was making a point: when it comes to Shakespeare, tourism may be important but the play’s the thing.

 

Later, at the Swan Theatre – the smaller of the two rebuilt auditoriums – I took my seat for a performance of Hamlet, surveying an intimate space of exposed brick walls and heavy timber columns supporting two upper levels of wrap-around seating. Most were filled with chatty, wide-eyed youngsters here for a shortened, student-friendly version of the play. Some were likely experiencing their first live Shakespeare.

 

The 75-minute production – alas, with no Yorick – was a grin-triggering interactive extravaganza. After sitting on the stage edge to chat with excited audience members before the show, the mostly young thespians – dressed in black and white gothic vaudeville garb – launched into a fast-paced retelling. A shyly smiling girl was plucked from the audience as an extra for one scene while Hamlet jumped down to sit with us during the action.

 

I could almost hear the lifelong theatergoers hatching around me.

 

Next night was the larger auditorium – similarly configured but more spacious than the Swan – for a sober but progressively gripping three-hour King Lear. This is the flagship Royal Shakespeare Theatre and it’s been transformed from the vast hangar it once was. Without front row seats in the old space, the audience languished up to 27 metres from the stage, deep in nap-triggering territory.

 

The new theatre is far more intimate, with the audience rising above the action rather than away from it: no-one is more than 15 metres away here. In the stalls, I felt I was part of Lear’s incredulous court as his madness slowly ignited, and I nearly ducked when huge broadswords seemed to clash over my head in an energetic fight scene. It was like watching a 3D movie where the elements seem to hover close enough to touch.

 

Next day, one of the production’s actors told me what’s it’s like to work on the new stage. “The old theatre was a barn, with us at one end behind this large picture frame, trying to reach out to anyone who could hear us,” said James Tucker, who plays Oswald. “But stepping out onto the thrust stage for our first performance was like being given a hug by the audience.”

 

If you go:

King Lear and several others plays are running at the RSC complex until April 2. A new season – including Macbeth – launches in mid-April. For more information and ticket bookings, see www.rsc.org.uk.

 

For information on visiting Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Nash’s House and New Place or other Bard-related sites in and around Stratford, see www.shakespeare.org.uk.

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